Nearly a decade after punctuating victory over droves of Deadites in the Army of Darkness with the memorable line “Hail to the king, baby,” Bruce Campbell went on to portray the King duking it out with a mummy. With a visage so distinctive that his 2001 memoir was titled If Chins Could Kill, a sideburn-adorned Campbell is a natural fit to play Elvis Presley (or at least a character who believes himself to be Elvis), though little else in 2002’s comedy horror Bubba Ho-Tep could be considered natural. And while the film’s nursing home setting couldn’t be much further from a rustic cabin in the woods or medieval battlefields of the Sam Raimi cult classics that made Campbell famous, Don Coscarelli’s film brims with a number of staples from the Evil Dead franchise, repackaged into another delightfully offbeat romp with supernatural forces while also offering fresh new angles.

Campbell’s elderly Elvis spends a good chunk of his early narration lamenting his sorry state, which started with a hip-gyration mishap that left him comatose. He recounts having swapped places with a convincing (and now dead) impersonator in a Prince and Pauper arrangement, and is now stuck in a rest home where no one believes his tall tales. There’s also the matter of the undiagnosable growth on his useless pecker. But Elvis finds a new zest for life by battling an ancient Egyptian entity intent on swallowing souls. Despite the rhinestone trappings, Campbell’s Elvis could just as easily be an aged Ash Williams, divining clues as he does from restroom stalls and quipping “we’re gonna kill us a mummy” instead of “let’s head down into that cellar and carve ourselves a witch.”

Residents of a rest home are easy pickings for this Egyptian soul-sucker, who dwells in the nearby river after a motor vehicle accident deposited its stolen sarcophagus there. After all, death is no stranger to the hallways of a nursing home and the evil entity can feed off the residents virtually undetected—a plot device that takes on an added resonance in the age of Covid. When Elvis encounters a giant scarab, he mistakes it for an oversized cockroach. But a fellow resident (Ossie Davis), who believes himself to be John F. Kennedy with sandbags where most of his brain should be, knows better. He points Elvis to the Book of Souls, which is more textbook than Necronomicon. From its pages, Elvis and JFK research how to dispatch the walking corpse that stalks their hallways at night and looks for souls to consume and rob of an afterlife, digesting them into “so much crap.”

The film is frontloaded with the despair of old age, in which Elvis verbally spars with a patronizing nurse (Ella Joyce) but bemoans that old people can’t even cuss someone out and have it bother them because everything an elderly person does is either “worthless or sadly amusing.” But striving to save themselves and their fellow residents from an afterlife-less death instills Elvis and JFK with renewed vigor, to the point that Elvis enjoys his first erection in more than two presidential terms when the nurse rubs medicated balm on his tumorous penis.

That aspect of the film, along with Elvis’ leering at a deceased roommates’ daughter (Heidi Marnhout), may not be as harmlessly playful in a post-Me Too world as it came off in 2002. Other elements make Bubba Ho-Tep a relic of its time. Simply tapping into the notion that Elvis could still be alive, and the various intrigue surrounding JFK’s assassination, hearkens to a simpler era when wild conspiracy theories dwelled only on the fringe. An over-the-top story about Elvis and JFK battling a mummy in a nursing home seems quaint compared to a large swath of the citizenry actually believing that a reality show-host president secretly combatted cannibal Satanist pedophiles in a pizza parlor.

Coscarelli’s decision to add Western elements to the film―dressing his mummy in outlaw garb, utilizing a maudlin guitar score and even arming a doomed nursing-home resident with plastic peashooters―muddles the film’s tone. It creates a sense of formulaic familiarity to a picture that would do well to go even more bonkers with its premise. Also known for the peculiar Phantasm horror franchise, Coscarelli would perhaps more successfully slather on the strangeness a decade later with John Dies at the End. But Bubba Ho-Tep left enough of an impression that Coscarelli has long considered a sequel, Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires. Campbell, however, dropped out of its development, likely dooming an idea that gained traction after initially just starting as a joke in the credits. After his groovy return to the chainsaw and “boomstick” ran its course in the Starz network’s “Ash vs. Evil Dead,” Campbell announced his retirement from playing both Ash Williams and Elvis. In doing so, he recognized Bubba Ho-Tep for what it is: “a nice little gem” that is “best as a one-shot deal―an iconic character in a really unique setting…Why repeat?” In an age of incessant prequels, sequels, reboots and remakes, there’s a wisdom to simply leaving relics undisturbed.

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